By Hutton Marshall
Right now, as many as a half-million people in the San Diego region struggle to find enough food to fuel an active, healthy lifestyle. Poverty, stigma and an unwelcoming bureaucracy systematically keep hundreds of thousands of San Diegans from eating to their fill on a regular basis.
Anahid Brakke would like to see this problem vanish in the next 10 years.
Brakke is the executive director of the San Diego Hunger Coalition, a small nonprofit connecting San Diegans to the food they need. The goal seems simple enough — feed the hungry — but Brakke and the Hunger Coalition utilize a seemingly endless list of resources, programs and organizations in their pursuit.
“The way we operate is like a little consulting agency,” said Brakke, a North Park resident. “We want to see everybody operating at the best efficiency and working with the best information — using the best practices to serve more people better.”
This means that the Hunger Coalition coordinates with a vast number of nonprofits that interact with segments of San Diegans most often food insecure: low-income families, recent immigrants, homeless or the elderly. San Diego Food Bank, La Maestra Community Health Centers and Feeding America San Diego are just a few of the many organizations around the Uptown and Mid-City communities with whom the Hunger Coalition works.
About one of every five people facing food insecurity in the San Diego region is a child. With school lunches, summer meal programs and aid supporting families, the programs supporting children are robust. Still, with approximately 160,000 San Diego children receiving an insufficient amount of food, the efforts continue to fall short. Brakke said the damage that malnutrition can do to a developing child is serious and long-lasting.
“Persistent gaps in nutrition in the early stages of life lead to permanent damage,” Brakke said. “Things like behavior issues, learning ability, and these things don’t go away. And as kids get older, they’re old enough to feel the stress in the household of not having enough food … and then there’s the struggle of trying to focus with an empty stomach.”
Parents face incredible challenges, and Brakke said the tough decisions are often lose-lose situations, choosing between meal options that are healthy and options that are sufficiently filling. Skipping meals to give more food for their children is another common practice by parents.
“Most parents know that fruits and vegetables are good for their kids, but they can’t really afford it,” Brakke said. “And a lot of people question that, but if you look at the price of an apple in a low-income neighborhood, it’s about 25 cents. You can also get a burrito for about 25 cents. So when you look at the cost per calories, one is going to keep your kid’s belly full overnight and the other one isn’t.”
Schools are another critical partner in the Hunger Coalition’s mission, but the stigma kids face in and out of the classroom can be a big roadblock. During the school year, kids from qualifying low-income families can rely on school lunches, but because of the often isolating effects of such meal programs, students are often reluctant to partake.
“Kids will skip school lunch to make it appear that they’re not one of the kids who needs free and reduced meals,” Brakke said.
Instead, Brakke hopes to encourage greater participation by encouraging schools to create free school lunches for all, which lowers the administrative costs and paperwork on the schools end. More importantly, the students enjoying school-sponsored lunches will be in the majority, not the minority.
A big part of the Hunger Coalition’s role involves increasing enrollment for CalFresh, the state program for federal food-assistance funding. Food stamps are a heavily politicized issue, but Brakke feels many of the assumptions made about the program and those benefitting from it are unwarranted.
“This is a very different program than it was 30 years ago,” Brakke said. “There’s extremely low fraud in San Diego County, and the average time of receiving CalFresh is under two years.
“Almost 50 percent of the recipients are children, and then you can add another 25 percent who are senior or disabled,” she said.
CalFresh is particularly impacted by bureaucracy, paperwork and overregulation, Brakke said. More than nearly any other state, Brakke said, the complex application requirements serve as a serious determent in California.
“The application process is way too hard — it’s ridiculous,” Brakke said. “We’re wasting way too much money on that for a small amount of benefit.”
In a similar vein, Brakke suspects there are a number of programs within the San Diego region, that if they would all coordinate to maximize efficiency, could dramatically improve the landscape for fighting hunger in the region. To accomplish this, the Hunger Coalition recently announced the Ending Hunger Initiative, which will combine extensive research and ambitious regional planning to understand how food insecurity could be wiped clean from the San Diego region within the next decade.
“What we really want to do is illustrate who is hungry and why,” Brakke said. “So when we are looking at these 10-year forecasts, we can look at things like, ‘where are we going to get the most bang for our buck? Where are we not utilizing best practices? Where are we not utilizing all the federal funds that are available?’”
With this research and effort aimed at rooting out the underlying causes, Brakke also hopes to dispel many of the negative, unwarranted assumptions many people make about those that are food insecure.
“If you’re failing to make ends meet, we really blame the individual, question their choices, and we’re very judgmental about it rather than acknowledge the systemic issues at hand,” Brakke said.
Brakke’s ability to empathize with San Diegans struggling to consistently put food on the table comes from her own experiences growing up in a working class family in Oregon. After spending several years working her way through college and into a successful corporate career in Boston, she said she finally achieved the financial security she long sought in childhood. Then, after many years of tireless work void of vacations, Brakke took a very overdue sabbatical in San Diego.
“So after I took some time off I guess my perspective just started to shift about what I wanted to spend my time doing when it came time for me to go back to work,” Brakke said.
After taking a program director job at the San Diego Foundation, working her way up through the organization and moving on to work within several nonprofits within the last decade, Brakke settled into her role as executive director of the Hunger Coalition in 2015. While she has addressed issues from homelessness to health services, helping those in need to put food on the table resonates most powerfully with her.
“I’ve always been the one standing up for the kid getting bullied at school, and I guess this job is just my adult version of that,” Brakke said.
Local residents who would like to aid the Hunger Coalition’s fight against food insecurity have several options. Those wishing to make a lasting impact should join with currently operating organizations, Brakke said, as established groups will be able to pool resources more efficiently. She added that food distribution programs and summer meal sites for kids are almost always in need of a helping hand.
“They tend to be a pretty bare-bones funded program, so having an extra adult there can make a huge difference,” Brakke said.
Similarly, those wishing to donate should give money rather than food, as nonprofits fighting hunger can effectively turn $1 into $7 with their bulk buying power.
Finally, if you or someone you know struggles to put enough nutritious food on the table, help is out there. Finding out if you qualify and where to access resources has never been easier. Call the San Diego County Access Line at 866-262-9881. For a list of organizations offering assistance or seeking volunteers in your area, visit sdhunger.org.
—Contact Hutton Marshall at email@example.com.